Photo by Stephen Voss
What is it about A Prairie Home Companion that has made it such an enduring hit? Garrison Keillor isn’t sure. But maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the way he answers questions on the occasion of the show’s 40th anniversary.
You’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of A Prairie Home Companion. That’s quite a milestone. How does that feel?
It’s for sure remarkable, even astonishing, that in the podcast era people will still tune in to a show at 5 pm Saturday. The show is a variety show: silliness, music, an old guy nattering, and it’s aimed at families, travelers, inmates, the tired, the poor, the tempest-tossed who need some diversion. Without the audience, of course, the show would’ve died on the vine, and I’m grateful they stuck around until now, when we’re finally starting to get the hang of it.
Tell me about the early days of the show—the bumps, the surprises, the stresses, the excitement.
PHC was mostly music in the early days. The West Bank crowd, Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson, Dakota Dave Hull, Butch Thompson, Bob Douglas, Becky Riemer Thompson, the West Bank Trackers, the Wolverines, with some ringers like Vern Sutton and Janis Hardy, Philip Brunelle, Robin and Linda Williams. We bumped around from Macalester to downtown St. Paul to the Walker to St. Thomas and wound up at the World Theater in 1978. The surprise was that we weren’t fired—the stress came from the fact that the show wasn’t very good, though the music was. I don’t recall much excitement, just stifled panic.
How have things changed?
The show got better. And funnier. And we brought in professionals, while keeping the amateur host.
How have you changed?
I shaved off my beard, I started wearing a suit and tie, my voice got lower, I sang, I became a novelist, I got old. I was preachy for a while and then stopped. I stopped drinking and felt happier. I got a daughter and could look off to my right and see her in the wings. Now and then she’d give me a thumbs-up.
When did you know the show was a hit?
It became a hit around 1985, in the spring. That was scary. People got rather intense for a while.
Why do you think PHC became such a phenomenon?
I tried to figure that out back in 1985 and couldn’t, and I haven’t thought much about it since then.
It’s hard to imagine Minnesota before A Prairie Home Companion and Lake Wobegon. How do you think the show has affected perceptions of the state?
Minnesota isn’t about marketing and promotion; it’s about real people who live in a lovely place among rivers and lakes, with majestic prairies and woodlands, in a culture that values decency and progressive thinking, which means that we intend to pass this culture on to our children. But then that’s true in Iowa, too, and parts of Wisconsin. The Lake Wobegon stories may have caught some of that culture. One hopes so. Out on the coasts they perceive Minnesota as a mystery, and down South they imagine that it is brutally cold. I would never try to change their minds.
Which character is dearest to you?
I like Clint Bunsen, who fixes cars and jump-starts them in the winter and is a civic booster and mover and shaker and who does his best to get along with people, even crazy ones and angry ones. I’d like to be more like him.
What’s the best/funniest/most touching piece of fan mail you’ve ever received?
The boy who wrote to say that he liked the show because during the “News from Lake Wobegon” his parents stopped yelling at each other.
Do you have a favorite memory?
My favorite memory is of the hour-long sing-along we do after the broadcast from Tanglewood every year, when a few thousand people jam down near the stage and we all sing the old songs that we know by heart, the patriotic songs, the hymns, the old R&B and doo-wop classics. If I look back about 10 rows, I see where the wheelchairs are parked, and I see the parents and siblings of severely disabled persons standing by their loved ones, leaning down, singing to them, and it makes me weep. I look at them and I can’t sing so I don’t look too long. It’s such a small thing, an hour of singing on a summer night, but the tenderness of people toward their wounded is enormous. It’s a living mural, the singers dancing around on stage, the band cooking, the standees grinning and shaking, and the special-needs contingent a part of the whole.
I wish we’d started in 1964 so this could be the 50th.
Would you humor me by boiling your experience with the show down to one word?
Why that word?
OK, how about two words: blind luck.
40TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY
Imagine the show lasting for three straight days, and you have a pretty good idea of what PHC is cooking up for its celebration.
The first broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion took place on July 6, 1974, on the campus of Macalester College, and that’s where the show is hosting its 40th anniversary celebration, a three-day affair on the Fourth of July weekend.
Highlights will include a Friday evening 40 Years, 40 Songs concert sing-along of all-American favorites, an extended live Saturday radio broadcast, a Picking & Singing jamboree where everyone’s welcome to bring an instrument and make music, a Sunday sing-along and re-creation of Lake Wobegon’s “living flag,” and free performances by a long list of musical guests.
Those guests include Iris DeMent, Stuart Duncan, Howard Levy, Heather Masse, Old Crow Medicine Show, Los Texmaniacs, Gillian Welch, Robin and Linda Williams, Bob Douglas, Adam Granger, Prudence Johnson, Dean Magraw, Dan Newton, Peter Ostroushko, Joe Savage, Jearlyn and Jevetta Steele, Vern Sutton, Butch Thompson, and Pop Wagner.
The event is free (but tickets are required for access to certain events and areas) and runs July 4, 11 am–10 pm; July 5, 11 am–10 pm; and July 6, 11 am–3 pm. Macalester College, 1600 Grand Ave., St. Paul, prairiehome.publicradio.org